Business Wire MIAMI. A Miami jury's $145 billion verdict in the punitive phase of the Engle case defies common sense and Florida law. It should not survive appeal. "People who make informed choices about smoking should not be rewarded for choosing to smoke," said William S. Ohlemeyer, Philip Morris vice president and associate general counsel. "Today's verdict is the result of a trial that repeatedly ignored the law, and we will leave no stone unturned in the appellate process.
"A judge isn't allowed to let a jury award damages before it decides who is entitled to collect them or before it considers individual awareness of the risks associated with smoking."
Ohlemeyer said the case should ultimately be overturned on appeal because, among other things, the class certification violated Florida law and the trial plan violated the state and federal constitutions.
Ohlemeyer said the list of legal errors by the trial judge "started long before jury selection and continued all the way through closing argument in this phase." The jury was allowed to consider "mountains" of improper evidence, was given conflicting legal instructions from the court, and was allowed to base its award on asset valuations of tobacco companies not even sued in the case. Ohlemeyer said no one should be surprised by the result, which he said was a result of the judge's decision to aggregate claims that require individual consideration.
"This was not a fair trial. This judge -- who is actually a class member himself - ignored the practical, legal and factual considerations that have persuaded other courts across the country to decertify or dismiss 28 similar attempts to try tobacco cases as class actions," he said.
"The 13,000 employees of Philip Morris U.S.A. and the tens of thousands of people who depend on Philip Morris for their livelihoods deserve better than they received from the trial judge and the process in the Engle case," Ohlemeyer said.
"The issue is much larger than tobacco," Ohlemeyer said. "This trial has demonstrated clearly that misuse of the class-action procedure can lead to outrageous results." Under the procedure adopted by Circuit Judge Robert P. Kaye, today's punitive award would eventually be distributed among all members of the class, Florida smokers and their families, who demonstrate to additional juries that they developed injuries because of wrongful conduct by the cigarette companies and sustained those verdicts on appeal.
However, no portion of the punitive award could be distributed until all of the claims - estimated by plaintiffs' witnesses to involve more than 700,000 Floridians - are resolved by appellate courts. Lawyers for the companies have said that process will require dozens of judges and juries to work for decades. The plaintiffs' lawyer, Stanley Rosenblatt, has said the final phase could take 100 years to complete. The necessity for individual trials for each of the class members was underscored, ironically, by the Engle jury itself. In the previous phase, the jury made specific, and substantially different, findings of fact for each of the three plaintiffs for whom they heard evidence.
When the jury compared degrees of fault, it decided that Philip Morris was no more responsible for any of the three plaintiffs' injuries than were the plaintiffs themselves. In one case, the jury determined that the plaintiff's delay in filing his lawsuit should prevent him from recovering damages altogether.
Over the last three years, a clear trend has developed in federal and state courts against class certifications for product liability cases, especially in tobacco cases. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled against class certification in similar types of litigation.
In May, the highest court in Maryland dismissed a class-action lawsuit similar to the Engle case and explicitly criticized the Florida courts' decision to allow the case to go to trial. In the last two weeks, juries in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Hernando, Miss., returned verdicts for tobacco companies in cases brought by individual smokers
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